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And yet Friedan’s status in the academy is uncertain. Today’s feminist intellectuals are as likely to pillory as praise her, and she’s often cast as a foil, or even a villain, in narratives extolling other feminists of her era. One professor of women and gender studies told me they now hesitate before teaching Friedan for fear of a backlash from students. Smith College, Friedan’s alma mater, conspicuously does not list her, along with Gloria Steinem, Sylvia Plath, and Julia Child, among the top famous graduates it holds up as epitomes of excellence. (She is on a much longer list, in small print, of second-tier achievers.)
The roots of Friedan’s embattled, uneven relationship with higher ed go back to her childhood. Long before she arrived at Smith, the woman born Bettye Goldstein in 1921 had a complex relationship with academe. Going to Smith in the first place — the same college her grandfather had blocked her mother, Miriam, from attending — was an accomplishment, as well as a rebellion. Bettye excelled there, majoring in psychology, editing the newspaper, and graduating summa cum laude in 1942. She credited Smith for helping her not to feel “like a freak.”
Friedan’s status in the academy is uncertain. Today’s feminist intellectuals are as likely to pillory as praise her.
But there were negatives as well. The finishing-school girls in her class at Smith condescended to her. Although she had encountered antisemitism in her hometown of Peoria, Ill., Smith acquainted her with the genteel, East Coast version. And there was sexism. Recalling a conference of student-newspaper editors years later, Friedan observed that male editors of Ivy League newspapers were “expected to become … a big newspaper editor or a college president or an ambassador,” whereas she “had no such power assumptions or ambitions.”
Friedan then pursued a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied with the eminent psychoanalyst Erik Erikson and other brilliant thinkers. But she saw herself as too liberated for this milieu. Years later, she claimed that she embarrassed some of the department’s eminences grises by using the words “oral,” “anal,” and “genital.” And that was just the first semester! In the second, as Friedan wrote in a famous passage in The Feminine Mystique, her boyfriend, Robert Loevinger (a physicist and protégé of J. Robert Oppenheimer), dumped her because she won a prestigious fellowship:
We walked in the Berkeley hills and a boy said: “Nothing can come of this, between us. I’ll never win a fellowship like yours.” Did I think I would be choosing, irrevocably, the cold loneliness of that afternoon if I went on? I gave up the fellowship, in relief. But for years afterward, I could not read a word of the science that once I had thought of as my future life’s work; the reminder of its loss was too painful.
The seeds of Friedan’s antagonism toward the academy grew from this moment. She dropped out of the Ph.D. program shortly thereafter. She did not want to choose between romance and family and fulfilling her scholarly potential. This explains to some extent her tumultuous marriage with Carl Friedan, a man who was not her intellectual equal. And it explains some of her most flagrant criticisms of radical feminism, which she found alienatingly anti-male and anti-family. Beginning in the 1960s, Friedan would worry that the failure of the women’s movement to accept that women wanted to be romantically involved with men, have children, and succeed professionally would destroy it.
In another famous passage from The Feminine Mystique, in a chapter titled “The Sex Directed Educators,” Friedan criticizes college administrators and professors for instilling sexist ideas of femininity among college students and, in general, contributing to sexism in the academy. “The few college presidents and professors who were women either fell into line or had their authority — as teachers and as women — questioned,” she writes:
If they were spinsters, if they had not had babies, they were forbidden by the mystique to speak as women. … The brilliant scholar, who did not marry but inspired many generations of college women to the pursuit of truth, was sullied as an educator of women. She was not named president of the women’s college whose intellectual tradition she carried to its highest point; the girls’ education was put in the hands of a handsome, husbandly man, more suitable to indoctrinating girls for their proper feminine role. The scholar often left the women’s college to head a department in a great university, where the potential Ph.D.s were safely men, for whom the lure of scholarship, the pursuit of truth, was not deemed a deterrent to sexual fulfillment.
Behind this critique of academic sexism lies a visceral horror. Friedan recoiled from the kind of life she saw female academics leading. She did not want to be like these lonely women. Her identity depended on a traditional ideal of femininity, even as she sought to overturn that ideal in her work. And, for some reason, she thought she could sidestep this conflict by going into radical journalism.
Friedan did not want to choose between romance and family and fulfilling her intellectual potential.
Not that she left academe behind completely. During the 10 or so years that Friedan worked as a reporter, she often squeezed scholarship into her stories. In a draft of a story about intentional communities for Redbook, in 1956, she mentioned Erich Fromm and Rollo May. (They got edited out.) That same year, she began writing a cover story for Harper’s about two scientists who predicted an ice age. The subjects of the story, Maurice Ewing and William Donn, thought the article — “The Coming Ice Age: A True Scientific Detective Story,” written in a lively, narrative voice — was sensationalist and full of errors. They considered suing her. But they never did, and the story, published in 1958, got the attention of an editor at W.W. Norton, George Brockway, a connection which would ultimately lead to the publication of The Feminine Mystique.
Like “The Coming Ice Age,” the book that would become Friedan’s masterpiece is deeply indebted to academic research, this time in the social sciences. She drew from the Gestalt analysts she had studied in college to hold the discipline of psychology responsible for cheating women. In the mid-1950s, she befriended the sociologist William J. (Si) Goode, who lived next door to her in Snedens Landing, a bedroom community on the western shore of the Hudson River. Goode was a functionalist: He identified and analyzed structures, like the family, that were conducive to social stability. In 1963, Goode published World Revolution and Family Patterns, arguing that economic changes drive changes in the nuclear family. In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan borrowed Goode’s ideas to argue that, in the course of these economically determined shifts in family patterns, women had gotten shortchanged. The book also attacks the best-known functionalist sociologist of that era, the Harvard professor Talcott Parsons, for upholding the nuclear family as a source of social stability at the expense of the happiness and well-being of the wife.
Friedan borrowed from academic literature and methodology in other ways, too. When she began to research the article that would ultimately become The Feminine Mystique, she developed a survey, modeled on the kind of opinion surveys which were then becoming commonplace in social science, to give to her classmates at their 15th reunion. The survey consisted of 38 questions focusing on women’s perspectives of their lives, ranging from the general to the intimate: “How many children do you have? Are you happy in your relationship?” The Feminine Mystique itself is larded with references to the big names of the day in sociology. And Friedan used statistics and studies, such as the 1959 Mellon Foundation study on women at Vassar College, to buttress her claims.
Nonetheless, Friedan thought of herself as an outsider to the academy. “Abe Maslow said that if I’d gone on in professional psychology, I wouldn’t have written the book,” she said in 1973, referring to Abraham Maslow, the famous psychologist, who she also criticizes in The Feminine Mystique. “I would have been too imprisoned by the rubrics.” In the 2001 edition of The Feminine Mystique, she recalled how, after she had finished writing the book, but before it was published, she went to Columbia University to ask the head of social psychology if she could finish her Ph.D. there. His response was discouraging: “After all those undisciplined years as a housewife, I must understand that I wouldn’t be able to meet the rigors of full-time graduate study for a Ph.D. and the mastery of statistics that was required.” The academy didn’t want Friedan. But she no longer wanted, or needed, it, either.
You address yourself solely to the problems of middle class, college educated women. Working women, especially Negro women, labor not only under the disadvantages imposed by the feminine mystique but under the more pressing disadvantages of economics.
Lerner’s objections initiated what would be one of the most tenacious critiques of Friedan’s work. Indeed, many other criticisms that continue to dog The Feminine Mystique today were first voiced that year. The sociologist Jessie Bernard protested that The Feminine Mystique was less a groundbreaking piece of scholarship than a popularizer of current trends, and disputed Friedan’s claim that the feminine mystique was a product of the postwar era rather than a pre-existing phenomenon. Bernard also challenged some of the book’s statistics and pointed out some amateurish errors. The urbanist Sylvia Fleis Fava raised another durable complaint: The Feminine Mystique, she felt, was too psychologically oriented, and should have aimed at institutional, as opposed to personal, change.
Friedan attempted to incorporate these criticisms into her work; she was, as she put it years later, continually evolving. In response to Lerner’s charges that she focused too much on the white middle class, she began working on a new book (which she never finished) about women of diverse races, ages, careers, and classes. As for the criticism that The Feminine Mystique did not do enough to try to change women’s status through institutions, that was not its goal. But in three short years, Friedan moved from its psychological, class-specific perspective to co-founding the National Organization for Women — an independent organization that tried to unite women of different classes and politics. (It was also, significantly, the only feminist organization of the time to include men.)
The foundation of NOW heated up academic feminists’ problems with Friedan. Some of the severest charges that scholars would make about The Feminine Mystique in the 1980s and 1990s first emerged as attacks against her character during her tenure as NOW’s president. At a 1969 NOW meeting, Friedan notoriously referred to lesbians — whose considerable power within the women’s movement she was attempting to minimize — as “the lavender menace.” The blowback from these remarks was immediate, though it would be nearly two decades before the British critic Rachel Bowlby would point to similar sentences in The Feminine Mystique, such as the one decrying “the homosexuality that is spreading like a murky smog over the American scene.”
Then there was the allegation that Friedan was overtly racist. This idea also gained traction in the 1980s, well after Friedan fought with Black radicals within the feminist movement over tactics. She didn’t help her case when, in 1972, while working as a delegate for Shirley Chisholm, she sent out a press release proposing to drive a truck loaded with watermelon and fried chicken to a Chisholm rally in Harlem.
Friedan’s tone-deaf remarks about race and homosexuality should not be ignored. But to conclude directly from them that Friedan — or her book — were homophobic or racist is simply wrong. She was a product of the late 1950s, pre-Civil Rights, pre-Stonewall era, a liberal who was unapologetic in her belief that the best way to make society equal for women was by changing laws, not by destroying the patriarchy or promoting identity politics. In the 1950s, she believed that society’s focus on sex (including gay sex) helped enslave women to domesticity. In the 1960s, she feared that what she called “a bedroom war” — a phrase she used to describe many younger women’s misandry and myopic focus on sexual liberation — would dominate media coverage, obscure more-mundane forms of gender justice, and leave the organization vulnerable to CIA and FBI infiltration. As for the charge of racism, in the 1940s, as a leftist journalist, Friedan wrote many articles condemning the Jim Crow South; she wrote about and lived in integrated communities, and she supported integration, including at NOW. It is true that she opposed the tactics of Black radicals, but she was not alone in this among her liberal feminist peers.
To understand the combustible remarks Friedan made in this fractious period, it helps to delve into her psyche and history. Growing up Jewish and female in a small Midwestern town, she did not have a language to rebel against her mother’s push to assimilate. So she read, she threw fits, she studied. Her style was pugnacious. Phrases — sometimes impolitic or hurtful ones — shot out of her mouth like bullets. She shared this trait with many other Jewish intellectuals of her time, but it was particularly unacceptable coming from a woman. As she said in 1979, “It’s all very well to say, speak in a soft tone of voice — but sometimes you have to speak loud enough to be heard.”
As radicals hijacked the women’s movement, Friedan sought to define her moderate vision. Her 1976 essay collection, It Changed My Life, contains a breathtaking account of her first public battle with professors, including Millett, at the 1969 Conference on Women at Cornell University, often considered the founding event of women’s studies as an academic discipline. For Friedan, it was a Scylla and Charybdis moment: “We had to steer between the fearful conservatism of timid academic women and threatened academic men and the reactionary opposition of suspicious new left radicals,” she wrote.
Hostility between Friedan and the professors raged during the very first session, “How Do Men Look at Women and How Do Women Look at Themselves?” Millett declaimed that “we live in a masculine society owned and operated by a masculine power structure.” Andrew Hacker, a professor in the government department at Cornell, expressed skepticism about Friedan’s dream of equality between men and women. He brought up “the liberal-arts fallacy”: the idea that if you understand something, you will change your behavior. “Men will still turn into the sort of men their grandfather was,” he predicted. These remarks made Friedan explode: “I will not have any part of a liberal-arts fallacy. My role will be of the active revolutionary,” she shot back.
Yet despite her desire to claim the mantle of the revolutionary, by the late ‘60s Friedan had staked out a more-centrist position than the young radicals who would soon dominate the academy. It was a noisy battle. As early as 1969, some scholars, like the historian William L. O’Neill in his book Everyone Was Brave: The Rise and Fall of Feminism in America, were forecasting the end of the women’s movement. At the same time, several women professors complained bitterly that despite advances for women, many of the criticisms of higher ed that Friedan makes in The Feminine Mystique still held. Here is the art historian Ann Sutherland Harris, writing in 1970: “Faculties and administrations … provide their women students with little or no preparation for the discriminatory world of employment outside.” The influential 1970 book by the sociologist Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Woman’s Place: Options and Limits in Professional Careers, provided new empirical data to support Friedan’s points about how women who wanted to join the work force were still burdened by having to do the housework.
Throughout the ‘70s, Friedan continued to make enemies in the academy (as well as outside it). Her infamous 1973 New York Times essay, “Up From the Kitchen Floor,” hogged credit for starting NOW and warned against “man hating,” the CIA, and “sex/class warfare.” She exposed antisemitism in the women’s movement as many feminists were charging that “Zionism equaled racism.” She was increasingly stereotyped as a relic. Even though she publicly apologized at the 1977 National Women’s Conference, in Houston, for the “lavender menace” remark, many critics would never let her forget that she said it in the first place.
Throughout the ‘70s, Friedan continued to make enemies in the academy (as well as outside it).
In the early ‘80s, as The Feminine Mystique approached its 20th anniversary, a younger generation of scholars began to rediscover Friedan. Many worked in disciplines outside of women’s history, sociology, and psychology, the three fields in which Friedan had had her greatest initial impact. The architectural historian Dolores Hayden showed that 19th- and 20th-century-women reformers anticipated Friedan’s belief that the suburban house needed to be redesigned for women’s rights. Stephen J. Whitfield, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University, defended Friedan’s shocking phrase “the comfortable concentration camp,” which she used to refer to the dehumanizing effect of suburbia on women.
Other scholars continued to criticize Friedan. One sticky new charge came from Sandra Dijkstra, a scholar of French literature at San Diego State University. Dijkstra argued that Friedan owed more to Simone de Beauvoir than she admitted. In her 1980 article “Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan: The Politics of Omission,” Dijkstra made a two-pronged argument. First, Friedan had “Americanized” The Second Sex — dumbed down the Frenchwoman’s moral cri de coeur of independence for women. And second, where de Beauvoir focused on the philosophical root causes (mythology, patriarchy) of inequality between the sexes, Friedan just attacked the symptoms of “the problem” (media, science, conspicuous consumption). Dijkstra complained that it took Friedan 12 years to give a “belated and grudging” confession that de Beauvoir had influenced her at all.
Dijkstra’s perspective, which became widely accepted, is one reason why the canonical feminist works of the late 20th and early 21st centuries ignored Friedan. Yet while Friedan may have borrowed some of de Beauvoir’s ideas, it is ultimately difficult, as even Dijkstra admits, to compare the two writers: Friedan is pragmatic, social, and liberal, whereas de Beauvoir is theoretical, philosophical, and antipatriarchal. As for suppressing the role de Beauvoir played in her work until 1975, I don’t think Friedan did this to magnify her own importance. De Beauvoir was not widely read in the states in the 1950s outside elite intellectual circles. Friedan was fighting to persuade a large general audience of Americans on an under-discussed topic: Women deserved equality outside of the home. It would hardly have helped her in that aim to emphasize her indebtedness to an obscure French existentialist.
The 1981 publication of Friedan’s third book, The Second Stage, exposed her to a raft of new criticisms. Friedan intended the book to seize the conversation about the family from social conservatives, in part by making suggestions that could help ordinary people adjust to the new two-parent working family. It tanked. In Critical Inquiry, in a response to a volume edited by Elizabeth Abel, Writing and Sexual Difference, the literary scholar Carolyn Heilbrun cast Friedan as a reactionary: “The failure of the ideal community of feminism to come into existence is, to judge from her prolix admonitions in The Second Stage, what has driven Betty Friedan to embrace the language and phallocentrism of feminism’s opponents.” And the sociologist Judith Stacy, writing in Feminist Studies, contended that, although Friedan accepted gay and single-parent families, her focus on the family both mirrored and lent support to “broader right-wing anti-feminist and reactionary tendencies.”
The most excoriating criticism of Friedan in this decade can be found in bell hooks’s Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, published in 1984. hooks turned Gerda Lerner’s decades-old point that The Feminine Mystique had neglected Black and working-class women into a scathing indictment of racism and classism. Friedan, she wrote, “did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions”:
She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter a factory worker, a clerk or a prostitute than a leisure class housewife.
She made her plight and the plight of white women like herself synonymous with a condition affecting all American women. In doing so she deflected attention away from her classism, her racism, her sexist attitudes towards the masses of American women.
hooks’s rage is understandable. Yet her critique ignores the fact that few, if any, feminists of Friedan’s era wrote about race and class together — and certainly not for a mass audience. I prefer Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2011 Atlantic piece about two other fallen feminist heroines — Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: “I think of Stanton and Anthony, misstepping, but always pushing, always agitating, always expanding, and I feel a strong kinship. I don’t need my personal pantheon to be clean. But I need it to be filled with warriors.” Friedan, for all her faults, was a warrior.
Friedan was unapologetic about her antipathy toward anti-porn feminists, especially the two champions of this position, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon. Friedan, a longtime advocate of free speech, opposed not only this branch of feminism but censorship in general. Nonetheless, excerpts from Dworkin’s book, Intercourse, were read at the think tank. It is not surprising that the book many readers understood at the time as considering all sex between a man and a woman as rape was anathema to Friedan; but in sessions about the book, the objections she raised against Dworkin’s extremism were modest. In one, she complained about Dworkin’s description of sex between a man and a woman, and in another she deflected, siding with the non-scholars in the room: “People have spoken to me privately [to say] they were intimated by the Dworkin.” Yet, in part, due to her frustration with the widespread endorsement of radical feminist politics in the academy, she would abandon the think tank in 1993.
In 1986, the Betty Friedan Papers become available to scholars at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library. The scholarly work benefiting from the papers, at a moment when the wider culture was turning against feminism, would create a new wave of interest in Friedan. Yet this work would also pit the stories she told about herself and her society in The Feminine Mystique against those unearthed by her biographers. It would cast her as someone who, for whatever reasons, did not have a firm grasp of the truth. The first such work to appear, Sylvie Murray’s The Progressive Housewife: Community Activism in Suburban Queens, showed that, although Friedan rails against volunteerism in The Feminine Mystique, she was herself involved in several volunteer projects in the early 1950s.
Another consequential scholarly corrective came from Daniel Horowitz, a historian at Smith College. Horowitz took up Friedan from an anti-consumerist perspective and made major new discoveries about her time in the 1940s and 1950s as a radical journalist, when she encountered leftist women protesting the constraints of their role and wrote pamphlets describing the problems of Black and working-class women. Horowitz contended that Friedan suppressed this radical past in The Feminine Mystique because having lived through McCarthyism, she feared any hint of her years working as a leftist journalist would alienate the middle-class women she was trying to persuade.
Horowitz’s article, “Rethinking Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique: Labor Union Radicalism in Cold War America,” was published in 1996 in American Historian. When Friedan, then in her 70s, read it, she threatened to sue. She categorically rejected the idea that she had obfuscated her role as a leftist journalist and exaggerated the significance of her stint as a housewife. Undaunted, in 1998, Horowitz would publish Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique. The book, which covers Friedan’s life until 1963, foregrounds the forces around Friedan more than the woman herself. But it was a careful study, and the scholarly reviews were largely positive. The sociologist Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Friedan’s friend since the late 1950s, noted in Dissent that Horowitz “scanted the enormous contributions [Friedan] made, the way she changed the lives of women from the 1950s to the late 1960s.”
The example of Horowitz’s book encouraged other young historians to dive into the complexities of Friedan’s legacy. In Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America (2010), for example, the historian Rebecca Jo Plant maintains that Friedan’s book expanded the themes in the housewife-and-mom bashing of volumes such as Philip Wylie’s 1942 best seller, Generation of Vipers. The field of Jewish history, which boomed in the 1990s, took up Friedan as well. Joyce Antler’s The Journey Home: Jewish Women and the American Century introduces readers to Friedan the Jewish daughter. Antler suggests that the housewives in The Feminine Mystique, more than representing a universal American archetype, are specifically Jewish. The historian Kirsten Fermaglich, in her 2007 book, American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares: Early Holocaust Consciousness and Liberal America, 1957-1965, groups Friedan with the secular American Jewish social scientists Stanley Elkins, Robert Jay Lifton, and Stanley Milgram. Fermaglich, like Stephen Whitfield before her, is concerned to explain and defend Friedan’s use of the inflammatory phrase “the comfortable concentration camp,” which many of her critics have found offensive or even obscene. Friedan, Fermaglich argued, was not the only secular Jewish writer using metaphors about the mass murder of Jews during World War II: She was just the only Jewish woman.
Other scholars, including Stephanie Coontz, Malin Lidström Brock, and Joyce Olcott have provided relatively sympathetic accounts of Friedan. But the most intriguing recent work on The Feminine Mystique is a 2018 master’s thesis, “Betty Friedan and Juliet Mitchell: Critiques of Ideology and Power.’’ Written by Jennie Eagle, now a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, it seeks to overturn the idea that The Feminine Mystique was “narrowly middle class and elitist to demonstrate the importance of Friedan’s … insights for subsequent forms of radical social thought.” Eagle made archival discoveries in the Betty Friedan Papers that corroborate something Horowitz and others had observed (and which Friedan herself had been saying for years): Editors at W.W. Norton cut the more-radical sections from early drafts of The Feminine Mystique. Here is one such draft, quoted by Eagle:
The mind [sic] of the New Orleans women, shrieking, cursing, spitting at the little Negro girls entering school, was [sic] created partly by the ideas they were never given, [sic] to read about. But where does the violence come from, in these feminine Southern housewife [sic], in those other happy housewives who stormed in such fury at [a Black girl integrating a school]?
In Eagle’s analysis: “The implication here is that sexist limitations help to reinforce racism; the Southern white woman’s world is shrunk by editors writing for a female audience assumed to be white and middle class.” If these and other comparable passages had not been cut, The Feminine Mystique might seem more forward-thinking on issues of what feminist theorists call the intersectionality of race and gender than it does today.
As it is, Friedan’s current reputation among contemporary feminist intellectuals of color is not high. Several recent books that do the necessary work of centering neglected feminists of color, like Sherie M. Randolph’s Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical and Rosalind Rosenberg’s Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray, place Friedan in a negative light and repeat ideas from the 1980s about her corrosive prejudices. And feminist discourse in the wake of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter has been even more hostile to Friedan: Kyla Schuller’s The Trouble With White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism and Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption both present her, and The Feminine Mystique, as avatars of white feminism, even of white supremacy. The difference between the criticisms that Gerda Lerner first raised about The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and those that feminists advance today is one of degree. The scolding Friedan received for excluding Black and working-class women has gelled into the recurrent charge that she is racist, classist, homophobic, and imperialist. The woman whom the world once celebrated as a feminist hero has been transformed into an antihero; the truth-telling activist has become a dissembler, the liberal feminist a white supremacist.
Friedan’s current reputation among contemporary feminist intellectuals of color is not high.
I can see why young feminist scholars would be skeptical about the idea that a book published in 1963 has anything to say now. Common wisdom is that we are more inclusive in terms of how we talk about racial and gender justice than Friedan. Yet this inclusiveness can be, in its own way, exclusive, not to mention counterproductive. As Friedan predicted, the proliferation of radical social movements and the diversification of feminist discourse have not prevented the erosion of gender-equality victories such as pay and representation. The problem may have a name now — many names, in fact — but it’s still a problem.
Like Friedan, I recoiled from these women and, eventually, the fields they excelled in. I next attended a graduate theater-training conservatory. There, I also had two female professors; one ignored me and the other refused to help when I needed it. The conservatory was, as another veteran of that time and place recently described it to me in a matter-of-fact tone, “an old boys’ club.” I got married. Unprepared for the Manichean struggle between my own desires and those of my husband’s, also a writer, I got divorced. I left New York for one teaching job, and then another. For several years I focused on my work. I got tenure. I published three books, all of which have to do with women hurling themselves against sexual and cultural norms.
Critics of Friedan charge, essentially, that we don’t need her anymore. Because we have moved so far forward, in terms of women’s equality. Because her frame is too narrow. Because she universalizes her experience. I suppose this is all true in some ways. But what I experienced in the 1980s, and have continued to experience since, suggests the opposite is also true. Sexism in the academy persists in all kinds of ugly ways, stunting the chances for equality — in the classroom, on student evaluations, in promotions, in meetings. The problem hasn’t gone away.
I still meet women who were transformed by reading The Feminine Mystique, just as it transformed me. It’s true that here were limits to Friedan’s imagination, and even to her empathy. We all have our limits. All the same, her book is humane. It allows women to imagine other lives, which is one of the greatest kinds of equality anyone can offer, and which is in short supply. We still need what she has to offer. As she puts it herself, in The Feminine Mystique’s soaring last paragraph: “Who knows what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves?”